Karachi Is Bizarro

12/24/2010 04:06 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bizarro World, a DC comics invention, is ruled by codes which attest to its supreme opposite-ness of Earth, beginning with its name Htrae, or Earth backwards. Bizarro World is ruled by maxims like "Us do opposite of all Earthly things! Us hate beauty! Us love ugliness! Is big crime to make anything perfect on Bizarro World!" When Superman found himself trapped on planet Htrae, and committed the crime of doing something perfect, he found his sentence would be shortened if he would simply admit that the normal-shaped planet was a cube.

Like Superman (and perhaps here is where our similarities end) my transition to Pakistan would have been easier if I knew it was going to be my own personal Bizarro World. A good friend of mine in Karachi once told me "To behave in a way that's considered normal here, one actually has to behave as if one is crazy." At the very least, if I want to get things done here, I have to do the opposite of what I'd do in America. All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, this is not. All I learned in kindergarten I need to unlearn to live in Karachi (except how to take naps). I have to do the opposite of what my elementary school teachers taught me about being polite and not raising my voice. Waiting in lines simply isn't done, and when I stand and do so, an incoming customer (usually an aggressive upperclass urban woman) sees me standing there like a poor stupid gazelle, and elbows forward while barking orders to the employee. My first year here I just fell back on the ingrained reflex of reticence around bad behavior. After all, when someone starts misbehaving back home, you usually look away in embarrassment. But after awhile, after months and months of conceding my next-in-line status to the pushiest person, I, like Superman, realized if I wanted to get anything done here I would have to behave like the Bizarrans. I took baby steps. A mean glare. Pushing forward in a crowd. Then once I was at Dunkin Donuts (and I mention the name because it means the clientele are at least middle-class English speaking folk who have absolutely been abroad) and while the guy was placing my order, a high school girl barged in and started ordering him around, demanding a box of chocolate sprinkled, or something. I spun around and snapped
"Excuse me, but I was here first."
Unfazed, she replied "But you just got here."
"Well, I got here before you did. Just wait until I'm done and then place your order."
Instead of shutting up, she snapped back with a smirk "I don't think you understand the way it works here."
I told her not be confused by my accent, that I've lived here for awhile, and continued to order. But perhaps what she meant was "You're in Bizarro World. Planets are cubed and us hate politeness!"

Another example: Here in upperclass urban Pakistan, people have servants. Favored topics amongst bored housewives revolve around the travails of managing domestic labor, how little work they do, how many financial favors they ask for, ad nauseum. Much discussion is generated on just how to get them to work hard, and properly! The conclusion is invariably "You have to shout at them and not do them any favors, or they'll walk all over you." Being essentially uncomfortable (and inexperienced) at dealing with domestic servitude, I've been, as some have told me, the good cop to other peoples' bad cop. And what do you know? They don't take me seriously. This applies to the service industry as well. I never get my clothes tailored on time; that honor goes to the lady with the loudest voice and best insults. I've actually tried out yelling, and found that I get more respect, and my waiting time, like Superman's sentence, is considerably shortened.

A final example: This week at work deadlines were missed. My visible frustration to this was met with a bemused smile, a smile that tried to say oh, silly, naive Westerner. You just expect things to work smoothly. And accompanying the smile was "Oh, well see, this is cultural. It's a culture of not submitting things on time."

How is this any different than the salesman selling Bizarro World bonds as "Guaranteed to lose money for you!"?

"Us hate efficiency! Us love procrastination!"

Suffice it to say, this place rewards bad behavior. Perhaps I should indulge my inner child and throw all those temper tantrums I wasn't allowed to as a kid. After all, I'll get my way -- if I yell loud enough. At least until I go back to Planet Earth.